Seasons by the Sea: Winning the Lunchbox Battle

Parents are tearing their hair out trying to come up with nutritious lunchbox and after-school snacks
With a few minor adjustments, the foods kids like to eat, like banana bread and hummus, can be made to be healthier. Laura Donnelly

“It’s that time of year again.” This is the most common first sentence at the beginning of September, the start of the school year, a time when most, if not all, parents are tearing their hair out trying to come up with nutritious lunchbox and after-school snacks. It can feel like a losing battle.

First of all, if your children have been exposed to all kinds of foods, at home, at restaurants, and friends’ houses, chances are their taste buds are more adventurous, their view of cuisines more developed, and their willingness to try new things more probable. If they have grown up in a household of Tater Tots, Hot Pockets, Totino’s, and Wonder Bread, good luck. 

That being said, I have a friend who raised two boys. She tried to serve healthy, balanced meals but the younger of the two balked at everything. She would cave and cook him a separate meal, replete with white chicken, white bread, more white starch, cheese, and milk. I called this his “strict white-food diet.” His inevitable fate? He is now married to a vegan, bwah-ha-ha!

Eating out can be expensive, but you can get decent sushi rolls and edamame at various gourmet stores and even some grocery stores. Start your kids off with simple California rolls, cucumber and avocado rolls, and tsukemono, Japanese pickled vegetables. Everyone likes edamame and kids like to play with their food so popping the soy beans out of their pods keeps them busy and they’re getting some protein. 

How about Indian food? The restaurant Saaz in Southampton offers a ridiculously reasonable lunch buffet, full of chicken dishes, vegetable curries, rice, daals, raitas, and parathas. You can fill a takeout container with your leftovers and have a whole other meal at home. I am mentioning these two options because after researching Indian and Japanese lunchboxes (tiffins and bentos, respectively), I discovered that the array of healthful possibilities is endless. They are kind of like our Lunchables, those little premade “meals” with lunchmeat, fake cheese, crackers, and puny juice boxes. Whether for lunch or snack time, you can pack small boxes with a lemony brown rice, a flavored yogurt (raita), chicken salad, and cut- up fruit. Try a cauliflower and sweet pepper pasta salad, with watermelon chunks for dessert.

Wraps can be made with just about anything, and depending on the ingredients, they can often be chilled, then sliced to resemble sushi rolls. Try whole wheat tortillas with turkey and hummus, chicken with ranch dressing and shredded lettuce, apples with peanut or almond butter, or avocados with cucumbers and cream cheese. Make something you know they’ll like and sneak in the good stuff.

For those who like to bake simple quick breads, make banana muffins with vanilla yogurt in place of sour cream, along with carrot muffins, and zucchini breads. All of these can be made in mini sizes and frozen.

For soups and sandwiches, employ the Jessica Seinfeld trick: Sneak in some pureed vegetables like cauliflower or broccoli. She puts a layer of bean spread in whole wheat grilled cheese sandwiches and pureed sweet potato and broccoli in creamy tomato soup. Some people think you shouldn’t hide the vegetables, but if it gets some extra nutrition into your children, I’m all for it. Your darlings will eventually learn that you’ve lied to them about plenty of stuff.

Of course, getting your kids involved in the shopping and meal preparations can help. Let them taste a recipe as you go along. Ask them what it needs: a pinch of salt, a squirt of lemon? 

Hummus is something most children like, whether spread on a sandwich or served with toasted pita chips, carrot sticks, and celery. Store-bought is bland; you should make your own. A friend recently brought over a hummus that was made with half green peas, half chickpeas, and lots of mint and lemon juice. Hummus made with edamame is another good variation.

You could go the route of cutesy sandwiches cut out to resemble teddy bears, hippos, and ladybugs, but these still have to taste good! String cheese, dried fruit, popcorn, and homemade Chex mixes are not the end of the world, so go ahead and serve or pack those.

For a more festive weekend snack, make a Mexican seven-layer dip on the healthier side, refried beans on the bottom, a layer of guacamole, some whole milk yogurt instead of sour cream, grated cheese, and salsa. For a lunch box (insulated) make a layered Southwestern bowl with rice, chicken, corn, beans, avocado, and mild salsa.

Promoting healthy eating and combating childhood obesity were top priorities for the former First Lady Michelle Obama. This resulted in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The success of this program has been debatable, but at least it forced some compromises: more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lower-fat milks, and lower sodium content in school lunches. Unfortunately, in 2017, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took steps to roll back many of the school lunch changes, so now we are back to high sodium foods, few whole grain options, and more flavored milks (think corn syrup) in our public schools. So, sorry to say moms and dads, good nutrition, like charity, begins at home.

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